Walking across the campus of my Midwestern university last year, I spotted a phalanx of sorority girls wearing matching T’s embossed with Greek letters and Chuck Norris’s face, along with a list of Chuck Norris Facts (“There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of animals Chuck Norris allows to live.”; “There is no chin under Chuck Norris’ beard. There is only another fist.” And so on). Catching up to a honey-haired straggler, I asked her if she knew who Chuck Norris was. She didn’t. Well, I asked, why was she wearing a picture of Mr. Norris’s head? Her reply was that it was funny. Curious, but trying not to come off as a total creep, I again asked why. She stopped, noticed me for the first time, and in a helpful tone usually reserved for giving directions to the elderly, stated that “It’s called college humor” and that “kids her age” like it. If her delivery hadn’t been so painfully earnest, I’d swear she was being ironic.
It’s fitting if this sounds like a parable, because it is Baptist minister turned Arkansas governor turned insurgent presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who has been reaping the story’s lesson. Hot off an Iowa Caucus victory, Huckabee’s poll numbers are ascending, and while pundits and reporters credit his surge to strong debate performances and evangelicals’ skepticism about Mitt Romney, they also can’t resist noting another possible cause: Chuck Norris. Not only is Norris, the martial-arts guru and also-ran 1980s action hero, currently on the campaign trail for Huckabee in New Hampshire, but the Chuck Norris Facts were the focal point of Huckabee’s first television ad, an ad which the candidate himself credits for infusing his campaign with the much-needed cash and media cachet that have fueled his rise.
Lowbrow, or at least low-wattage, celebrity presidential endorsements are nothing new. Today, Ron Paul has the deflated Baywatch bombshell Donna D’errico stumping for his brand of neo-isolationism; once upon a time, Lee “Six Million Dollar Man” Majors supported Jimmy Carter and the Chicago Cubs shilled for Warren Harding. But in a TMZ.com era where exposing the manufacture of celebrity is as popular as celebrity itself, Huckabee’s ironic acknowledgement of Chuck Norris’s dubious bona fides (“My plan to secure the border?” Huckabee has said. “Two words: Chuck Norris.”) stands as an innovation: a presidential candidate embracing 21st-century Family Guy values.
As anyone who’s watched Family Guy knows, Fox’s syndicated animated series is ostensibly the story of suburban blow-hard Peter Griffin but is really just an excuse for creator Seth MacFarland to spew forth non sequiturs about the movies and TV shows of his childhood. Among the college students I teach, Family Guy seems almost sacred, a universally agreed-upon touchstone of what constitutes comedy gold. But the paradox of Family Guy‘s popularity is that MacFarland is 34-years-old and his show’s rabid fans are a full generation younger, a cultural chasm that raises an obvious question: Why would kids who’ve never seen Scarecrow and Mrs. King or Diff’rent Strokes — or Chuck Norris, for that matter — think references to such pop culture detritus are interesting, let alone funny?
There are two explanations. The cynical answer is that we live in a postmodern hell, wherein cultural references not only do not need to mean anything but purposely shouldn’t if they want to be perceived as cool. This view helps explain runway supermodels in Iron Maiden sweatshirts and the names of most of the fledging indie-rock bands on MySpace. This answer is very depressing.
The more optimistic answer, however, is that such references supply synthetic camaraderie. It goes like this: Even if the average Family Guy viewer doesn’t know enough Magnum, P.I. minutiae to follow a spoof of it, they know that some segment of Family Guy‘s millions of viewers must hold this trivia in their heads or the joke wouldn’t air. So those who catch the references get to say “Hey, I totally remember wasting my childhood watching Magnum, P.I..” And for those who don’t catch the references, the awareness that this Magnum, P.I. moment of cultural communion is occurring for someone somewhere makes Magnum, P.I. a bit of 20th-century folklore now worth knowing and sharing, even if that knowledge runs no deeper than the equally community-forming mention of the show on Family Guy.
The Faustian bargain of synthetic camaraderie is that all these pop-culture references become empty and interchangeable: the actual TV show Magnum, P.I. doesn’t matter any more than the actual Chuck Norris does, which is why the 50,000 mythmaking Chuck Norris Facts were originally Vin Diesel Facts and could just as easily be Tom Selleck or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Facts tomorrow.
This tension between meaning and meaninglessness is what lets Huckabee use the now-canonized irony of “Chuck Norris” (patron saint of college humor and Mountain Dew) to earnestly accept an endorsement from Norris (washed-up B movie actor and junior varsity bible-thumper) and leverage it for more mainstream media attention. It also makes Norris’s endorsement bulletproof. You can’t critique Huckabee for touting Norris’s support because his wink-wink ad preemptively admits how absurd it is to have the star of Sidekicks and Top Dog as your guiding political light. Even better, the Norris endorsement earns Daily Show-caliber hipster cred by celebrating the vacuity of all celebrity endorsements, thereby vitiating any criteria by which reporters and pundits could point out that Norris’s endorsement may be the most vacuous of all.
It’s a brilliant political move, but can Huckabee really have it both ways? Can he be at once the Olive Garden loving everyman and the cynically deconstructive Court Jester?
Academically speaking, the irony of Huckabee’s use of irony is that literal readings of texts are the bread and butter of populist Christianity: the Bible (and likewise the Constitution) means what it says, no exceptions. But the real problem is that irony is both exclusionary and audience specific. While Family Guy’s simultaneous reanimation and mauling of The Facts of Life is fairly benign, in light of Huckabee’s cultural warrior past, his multipurposing of Chuck Norris is considerably less so. As David Corn of Mother Jones has pointed out, Huckabee’s calls for political unity in 2007 belie his calls in 1992 that AIDS patients should be quarantined or in 1998 that women should submit to their husbands and that homosexuality and necrophilia are morally equivalent. Using Norris as part of this Janus-faced repackaging means laughing at either the presumably not arch-conservative co-eds who use Chuck Norris as a badge of cool or at the millions of folks who are sincerely revved up by Delta Force or sincerely inspired by Norris’ Christian conversion. No matter how you slice it, the joke is on one of them.
The joke is on Norris as well, insofar as it appears to be lost on him. Asked facetiously by barelypolitical.com whether Walker, the fictitious Texas Ranger Norris played on TV, would run for president, Norris answers that “he” — the flesh and blood Norris — isn’t interested. And responding to his newfound popularity, Norris writes in his column at WorldNewsDaily, a conservative website, that “I’ve got a bulletin for you, folks. I am no superman.” He then tells of his own superman, Jesus Christ, who, in Norris’ conception, has some amazing facts of his own: tears that cure cancer, a Darwin-defying list of creatures He has allowed to live, a penchant for kicking ass, and an oddly anachronistic commitment to the Second Amendment. In the face of such messianic modesty, you sort of stop wondering where Huckabee’s audience developed their taste for tall tales of benevolent, bearded outlaws.
In trying to apprehend the appeal of the Huckabee candidacy, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted in a 04 January op-ed that the Arkansas governor was our first “ironic evangelical”: “funny, campy…and not at war with modern culture.” This may be true, but as the primary season wears on, it’s worth remembering that the Late Night With Conan O’Brien sketch that re-canonized Chuck Norris as an ironic god in the pop-culture pantheon consisted of the show mocking a clip of Walker, Texas Ranger in which a small boy casually announces to an elderly couple, “Walker told me I have AIDS.” The scene is both horrifying and hysterical — doubly so when you realize that Chuck Norris is so ridiculous that he makes children with AIDS seem momentarily hilarious.
Given that Huckabee’s own views on AIDS (and women and homosexuality) are so preposterous that he manages somehow to come across as ridiculous rather than horrifying, the governor should hope that our culture’s love affair with Family Guy-esque absurdity continues through the primary season. The rest of us can simply hope that now that the age of irony has been officially embraced by two of the least cool things on Earth — presidential politics and fundamentalist Christianity — its end is finally upon us. If Chuck Norris pulls that off, it’ll be a fact worth remembering.